What is Male Headship?

by Mimi Haddad

Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25, NRSV).

How often have you heard a sermon celebrating love as the primary characteristic of male headship? The fact that few of us have is curious when you consider the number of times Paul asks husbands to love their wives in Ephesians 5. Love your wife, Paul tells husbands, just as you love your own body and just as Christ loved the church by sacrificing for her. No less than ten times Paul reminds husbands to love their wives—tending to their needs as they would their own bodies—tenderly and with nurture.

Husbands are to nurture their wives as they do their own body because in marriage, husband and wife are one-flesh. To emphasize the one-flesh union between husband and wife, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24: ”For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (TNIV). If husband and wife are “one body” just as Christ and the church are “one body,” then naturally, husbands nurture and love their wives as they do their own flesh, because her body is his, and his body is also hers (a point Paul repeats in 1 Cor. 7:3-7).

Paul’s discussion on marriage begins in Ephesians 5:21 where all Christians are invited to voluntarily submit to one another. While women are called to voluntarily submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22) and to respect them (Eph. 5:33), the emphasis of Ephesians 5 is not on the authority of husbands, but on their obligation to love their wives as they love themselves. In fact, the only mention of authority in marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 7:3-7, where Paul gives husbands and wives mutual authority over one another’s bodies.

Love, intimacy, oneness, and union are underscored throughout Paul’s discussion of headship in marriage in Ephesians 5. While many wish to ascribe authority and rule to male headship, I believe Paul is suggesting just the opposite. It was common during the first century for rulers to expect subjugation, even the laying down of their subject’s lives—Roman subjects were required to lay down their lives for their “head,” the emperor. And, as Jesus said, the rulers of the Gentiles lorded their authority over many (Matt. 20:25). Those in positions of authority, such as husbands, would anticipate complete obedience from their wives. But in Christ’s kingdom, those in positions of cultural authority should be the first to serve, even to the point of death. For Christians, authority was countercultural. Christ said that “…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28, NRSV).

Similarly, husbands, though endowed with cultural power like rulers, are called to imitate Christ who, though endowed with all power in heaven and earth, came not to rule, but to serve and to lay down his life for others. What might husbands expect in the new covenant community? They can anticipate a cross, a place to lay down their needs and self-interest for the needs of their wives; loving them as Christ loved the church by denying even their own lives should it be required.

Friends, for Paul, male headship is primarily about love, demonstrated by sacrifice and an abandonment of cultural authority. Love is the foundation of headship, exhibited in Christ’s headship of the church—built through sacrificial love. In fact, Paul enlarges upon the nature of love in 1 Corinthians 13:3-7. Here we learn that Christian love is not rooted in demanding one’s own way. The nature of love is the glad surrender of one’s rights and privileges for the beloved. Christ said that to love him was to obey his commandments. What are his commandments? Both men and women obey Christ by loving others as Christ loved us (John 13: 34 & ff; John 14: 15 & ff; John 15:12 &ff).

Mimi Haddad is the president of Christians for Biblical Equality.